While Steve Pappas sat in court Monday, listening to two attorneys argue on his behalf and against, 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr was busy meeting with constituents and preparing for her fifth Board of Supervisors meeting since taking office. Fourteen weeks have passed since Farr defeated Pappas by 806 votes out of a total of 35,524 in the district which ranges from the South Coast’s Goleta, UCSB, and Isla Vista to the Santa Ynez Valley and Solvang in North County. But Pappas has not given in and-in the name of defending the electoral process -filed a legal contest to the election.
But his case took a big hit last Tuesday when Judge William McLafferty disagreed with Pappas’s argument that thousands of voter registration cards collected by third-party registration groups should not count in the November election because they were turned in after a three-day deadline, an argument crucial to Pappas’s case. Instead, McLafferty sided with Farr attorney Fred Woocher, who said the purpose of the election code was to protect voters, not disqualify them for something that may have occurred after the registration card left their hands. “There was never a challenge from Pappas prior to the election,” Woocher added, of the late-registration dispute. “You can’t do it just because you lose the election.”
The judge indicated he would hear evidence that registration cards had been submitted past the October 20 deadline, and that a certain box on the registration card-one that registrants must fill out if they’ve been registered at another address-had either not been filled out in some cases, or had been filled out incorrectly or fraudulently.
While Pappas attorney Jeff Lake went into Monday’s hearing saying there were up to 9,700 cards that could be invalid, that number, after McLafferty’s rulings, was trimmed closer to 5,000. Pappas is only contesting votes in 18 UCSB and Isla Vista precincts, where he lost by a total of 3,057 votes. While his chances got a lot slimmer, Lake said there is still plenty of evidence of broken rules or fraud. “It’s going to be incredible when you see what happened,” he said. McLafferty’s demeanor did not suggest he was entirely convinced by Lake’s words.
Sitting in the back row of the courtroom yesterday were a small group of Pappas supporters. Absent, however, was the biggest crusader of Pappas’s cause, rancher Nancy Crawford-Hall, who opines weekly on the case in her column in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, which she owns. Crawford-Hall, who bought the newspaper in 2006, has given Pappas $195,500 since the start of his campaign. Since the November election ended, she has given $73,000 of the $85,250 that has come in to help offset debt and cover litigation costs.
The process has come at great expense to both sides, and both Pappas and Farr have sent out fundraising letters in hopes of raising cash to pay legal bills. As of December 31, the end of the last campaign finance reporting period, Pappas had spent $49,807 on attorneys, investigators, and other consultants in contesting the election. A County Elections Office recount cost Pappas $11,118.90.
The 3rd District, long a swing vote between liberal South Coast districts and conservative North County ones, has been no stranger to controversy popping up in court over the past two decades. In 1992, Willy Chamberlin won the seat by less than 10 votes and a Superior Court decision upheld his victory. But an appeals court reversed that decision two years later, giving more votes-and the seat-to Bill Wallace, who was also represented by Woocher. A decade later, a recall effort was held against Wallace’s successor, Gail Marshall, but ultimately failed.
The third round of 3rd District-related court proceedings in 17 years continues Tuesday in McLafferty’s courtroom and potentially could go for some time. After opening statements, County Registrar Joe Holland will be called to the stand. From there, it is possible that voters will be called in on a person-by-person basis for inquiries about his or her registration and vote.